Friday, July 12, 2013

From Victim to Author

My son Moshe, a well respected rebbe in the Yeshiva of Waterbury, posed the following question on the phone with me last week. Why does the national day of mourning on the Jewish calendar, a day of such huge consequence and one filled with ritual have no name? We call it Tisha B'Av which means the 9th day of the month of Av, which it is. But that's not a name. That's a date! All the other major occasions on our calendar have names that describe the theme of the day. Sukkot, Pesach, Yom Kippur, Purim etc., are all names, not dates.
Why is Tisha B'Av the exception? Why not call it Yom Hachurban, The Day of the Destruction or Yom Puraniyut, The Day of Our Punishment?
Surely an occasion of such significance, albeit sad, deserves a name.

This Shabbat we open the 5th and final book of the Torah that of Devarim. The book is different from the others. It records not the words of Hashem but the words of Moshe, words that he spoke to the Children of Israel shortly before his death. In the opening reading of this week, a portion by the same name as the book, Devarim, Moshe begins a review of the journey that got the People to the place they are now, on the threshhold of entering the Promised Land. Moshe goes over episodes of consequence to help frame there situation. First he tells how Moshe found he could not manage the people with their quarrelsome nature, and how he needed to appoint judges to share the burden, a section that harkens way back to the portion of Yitro in Exodus. Then Moshe goes on to tell of the sin of the spies and the nation's rejection of the Land that lead to the wandering of the past 38 years.

In each case Moshe tells a story that we know from the earlier portions of the Torah when the events happened. What is surprising however is that the version Moshe tells of the story includes information and perspective that is entirely new. Let me raise several examples.
First, when Moshe speaks of his struggle to lead the people alone and the appointment of a system of judges, Moshe says that he told the People "I can no longer carry you". If this is the same story recorded in Yitro in the Book of Shmot, Moshe there never makes any such complaint to the people! It is Yitro who challenges Moshe, not Moshe himself complaining, and certainly not to the people!
And then Moshe goes on here to say that in response I asked you "take for yourselves people of merit, those wise, insightful, and knowledgeable from your tribes and I will put them as your heads." Nowhere in the earlier story did the People have a share in choosing the Judges! And then Moshe continues, " And you answered me saying "we agree with all that you said for us do"". In Exodus the People are not consulted nor is it recorded that they give approval to Moshe's new set-up.

And when we turn to the next story, that of the spies and the People's rejection of the land, again we are given detail entirely new.
First the sending of the spies seems, according to Moshe's remarks here, to be at the behest of the People. Moshe tells them, that they asked of the spies to be sent and he, Moshe, thought it a good idea. Second we are not given the report of the spies at all in this account in Devarim other than that they said the "land is good". The rejection is laid squarely on the People with no mention of the ten men who told them they would not succeed in conquering Canaan. And still more, Moshe tells them that the consquence of their sin was that he too would not be able to enter the Promised Land. In the Book of Bamidbar there is no indication that Moshe was precluded from entering the Land because of the sin of the spies. On the contrary the Torah tells us that it was the personal sin of the "waters of quarrel" that doomed Moshe and Aharon.

How do we reconcile all these variations and discrepencies?

In order to understand Moshe's rendition of the stories we need to understand the purpose of his remarks. What was Moshe trying to accomplish in his address? It surely is not to simply review and old story.

The answer is that Moshe knew that if the People were to become who they needed to become in the land of settlement than they needed to learn from their history and grow from their mistakes. In order to do that they would have to see themselves as the authors of their experiences, not victims of circumstance. Over and over Moshe insists in his rendition of the earlier episodes that the People were full partners in the unfolding developments. They picked the Judges. They approved the judicial plan. They sent the spies. They rejected the Land. They were responsible for even Moshe not being able to enter. Moshe won't let them make excuses or place the blame on others.
He insists on framing the story in such a way as to make their authorship of the events inescapable.

Only when the People will own their story and see it as a product of their own choices and willfullness, both in the good and bad, can they use their national experience to make corrections, learn and change!

This is so true in all of our lives. If we look at the story of our lives as the product of forces outside ourselves, circumstances beyond our control, we may curse or bless our fate, but we will not change or grow. Our lives and experience needs to be our teacher.
In order to be our teacher we need to see ourseves as the authors of our lives and experience, not its victim.
Our life is just that, Ours! It is the most important source of any wisdom we may posess.

The 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi wrote "Where there is ruin there is hope for treasure."

I might add to that wisdom, the hope is born when we see the ruin as our own!

And so we return to the question of my son Moshe with which we began. Why does Tisha B'Av not have a name. I suggest because it is the day of national ruin. In its mourning, tears and sadness, lies a treasure, indeed the treasure of redemption. But that treasure can only be found when each of us name's the day for him/herself. We must be the authors of the tragedy, make it personal. If we mark Tisha B'Av and keep all the rituals out of deference to the past we will indeed keep the law. But we will not come to make the corrections in ourselves necessary to bring about the 'ge'ula'.

For redemption to happen each of us must make Tisha B'Av personal. We must name the day. We must see ourselves as authors of our national tragedy.

May indeed the 9th of Av turn this year from a day of mourning to a day of joy. May we finally know the blessings and happiness G-d wills for us!

Shabbat Shalom

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